Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Game of Friends

Keeping score in Euchre the traditional way.  Photo by J. Berta

Greetings All:

A Friday night in February, in Iowa, winter's grip is strong.  We're inside.  What to do?  How about playin' some cards?  Sounds good to me.  What game?  Why Euchre of course.

For some of you, this game may (and hopefully will) trigger fun memories.  For others, you're scratching your heads.  "Euchre, what the heck is that?"  Only the best card game ever.  Read on, gentle readers, I'll explain.

But first, let's set the stage for last night.  After an absolutely moderately above average meal of Mongolian BBQ, Dawn and I got together with a couple of great friends to hang out in their basement and play this wonderful game.  On Direct TV was the 80s-New Wave station and it was the perfect background sounds.  (New Order, English Beat, Public Image Limited (yes, that is the song, "Rise" you are thinking of but could not remember, you're welcome) and others floated in the air.

Meanwhile, on a green felt table, cards were sliding, tricks were taken, points were made and great fun was being had.  There was no place I would have wanted to be at that time for those few, wonderful hours.  

Some of you reading this are nodding your head in approval.  "Euchre with friends on a winter night, super idea!"  Others of you are saying, "OK, I get it, some kind of card game.  But what kind of card game?  I never heard of it."

I've got some links to the game below for those of you who are so inclined to read up on it.  However, for those of you who are fine with a quick overview of the game, here goes:

Euchre is a "trump" card game.  You play with a partner and 24 cards are utilized.  Someone deals and after everyone has five cards, the dealer turns up one of the remaining four.  That is your prospective trump card.  If hearts is turned up, hearts is in line to be trump.  Unlike other games, the ace is not the highest card.  It is the jack of whatever suit is trump.  So, in our example, the jack of hearts is the "right bower."  It's the highest card in the game.  Next is the jack of the same color suit.  Thus, if hearts is trump, the jack of diamonds is the "left bower."  You and your partner need to win three of the five hands to earn a point.  If you get all five hands (called "tricks") you get two points.  However, if you call trump and only get two "tricks," look out, you just got "set" and the other team gets two points.

Then there is that magical moment when someone has enough trump in hand to "go it alone."  If you are so fortunate to be that person and get all five tricks, you have just earned four points.  It does not happen often, but when it does, it's a LOT of fun.  All your partner does is collect your tricks.  

You can play to any number but traditionally, winning is at 15 points.  You can keep score on paper or use the traditional way of the 7 and 8 to keep track.  To me, it just adds to the quaintness of the game.

Here's a bit of information about the current state of affairs with Euchre in America, from our friends at Wikipedia:

"The game has declined in popularity since the 19th century, when it was widely regarded as the national card game, but it retains a strong following in some regions like the Midwest; especially the states of Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin[citation needed]."

As to the call for "citation needed" I'll respectfully disagree.  All one has to do is walk into a VFW, bar, church hall, or basement on a weekend afternoon or evening in these states and I'll bet you'll find a game in progress...or three other folks more than eager to play.

It's true Euchre's popularity has faded.  At it's height, it was likely a national game and even was memorialized in song.  Please see below:

From the Library of Congress, a song about (I presume) Euchre, fair use claimed, full cite below.

Such is life, things change.  Who knows, perhaps in a few generations, Euchre will be a distant memory, resigned to nursing homes and senior centers.  I hope not, but if it is, I'll be be one of the old guys yelling, "What's trump again?"

Although as mentioned above, it's still got a strong following here in "flyover country."  Here's an advertisement for a Euchre Tournament at "Governor's" in Bettendorf.  (A place that has one of the BEST tenderloin sandwiches around, I might add!)

"Governor's" Eurche Tourney ad, sorry about the sun glare.  Photo by J. Berta

 Euchre is not a terribly mentally taxing game. You can carry on a conversation, listen to music (watching sports might be pushing it) and not worry about making a costly error.  Even if you do, no one really cares.  It is a fun game.

However, there is also a sense of friendly competition.  As we were playing last night, all our games were pretty tight.  Some hands were won by smart play and others by luck.  Either way, it was a super time.

It was a tight game indeed!  Photo by J. Berta

At one point in the evening, our friend commented about how he learned this game from his Father-In-Law.  I could tell by the sincerity in his voice that those were good times indeed.  On the walls of the basement were photos of that man.  Maybe it was just me, but I sensed the smile in the picture grew just a bit sharper as I looked at them, as if he was watching with approval of all of us having fun and playing a game he dearly loved.

As I type this, I think about my own family connection with this game.  My Dad is from Hungary and did not play this game until he came to this country.  I remember how he and my Grandpa Mike would play cards for hours, this game.  They would sit in the small living room in Ottumwa, Iowa, at an old coffee table.  On that table were vintage metal cups that were filled with "highballs."  I didn't understand it, but I knew it was something special.  

They had some version of single-player Euchre.  I'd like to learn it, I suppose, yet the desire was never strong enough to actually figure out how.  Perhaps I am more motivated by keeping the memory undisturbed of the two of them playing.  It's like, at least for me, a photograph of nostalgia hanging on the wall of my mind.    

Chess has been called the game of kings.  Bridge can have (unfairly or otherwise) a snooty association.  Poker is a game that has made some wealthy and many, many more poor.  Other games involve physical exertion and lots of equipment.  However, Euchre is unique.  Sure, there's an objective and points are kept.  Someone wins and someone loses.  But not really.  No one (at no one I hang out with) will say, "Hey, remember how we took three tricks without any of the bowers?"  Nope, not a chance.  Yet what is remembered is the good time that is had.

That is why I think of Euchre as, "The Game of Friends."  I'm a fortunate person indeed to have gotten to spent last night and any night, for that matter, playing this most special game.

Be well my friends,


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